Sure the entire list is subjective and, of all the artists who appear here The Band would be my favorite, but my personal prejudices don’t distract from the fact that this is a stunning song. The song was buried halfway into the pretty lousy Band swansong Islands, a contractual obligation album thrown together after The Last Waltz, but it’s got all of the hallmarks of The Band at their best. Garth Hudson’s swirling keyboard underpins a rootsy modern folk song about the birth of Christ written from the perspective of an awe-struck shepherd abiding his flock by night. Rick Danko, with help from Levon Helm and Richard Manuel, brings a high level of pathos and yearning to the vocals. “Fear not, come rejoice/It’s the end of the beginning/praise the new born King” sings Danko in his vulnerable high tenor, and it’s clear that Robbie Robertson has written not merely a great Christmas rock song, but a great Christmas carol. This is the last great song by The Band, and one of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever recorded.
By the time the album Third/Sister Lovers came out, Big Star was a band in name only. This was Alex Chilton’s baby, and the album is a swirling, difficult listen. There’s great beauty on it, and also real darkness. But buried on the album was this little slice of pop music perfection; a strangely discordant intro, a chorus that sinks its hooks deep into you, a saxophone fade out, and a lyric that straightforwardly tells the story of the Nativity. “Angels from the realms of glory/Stars shone bright above/Royal David’s city/Was bathed in light of love/Jesus Christ was born today” Chilton sings in one of the most sincere vocals ever recorded. “The wrong shall fail/And the right prevail.” It’s entirely possible that this was written for former Big Star guitarist/songwriter Chris Bell, a Born Again Christian, explaining the final line “We’re gonna get born”, but regardless of the inspiration the marriage of beautiful pop music and a completely non-ironic telling of the story of Christ’s birth puts this song on the list.
Another entry from the Very Special Christmas series, this one is by alternative rock superstars Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan and company perfectly evokes the wonder of Christmas morning by looking at it from the perspective of parents watching their children and thinking back to their own childhoods. “Now the word is given/It’s time to peek inside/It’s time to let the toys out/So anxious for your look of joy and delight.” It’s almost impossible to believe that a lyric this tender and charming came from the same guy who wrote “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “Zero”, and the suicidal ruminations of “Today” but there was always so much more to Corgan than darkness and anger. He rarely gets the credit he deserves as a great songwriter but this song, which deserves to be a Christmas standard, should prove that there was a lot more to alternative rock than rage and angst.
A lot of people wrote off The Pretenders after half the band died at the peak of their popularity, victims of their own addictions. But to everyone’s surprise they came back with a third album that was as good or better than their best work. It was also their last truly great album. It’s a standard rock album, circa 1983, but the final track was a gorgeous ballad called “2000 Miles”, a song written for the late ace guitarist James Honeyman-Scott. The lyric is steeped in loneliness, but it’s the fact that the sadness occurs at Christmastime that gets this song on the list. “I miss you/I can hear people singing/It must be Christmas time,” sings Chrissie Hynde. Though written for a deceased friend, it can be easily understood by anyone who is alone or separated from someone they love as the holidays arrive.
One of the most awful Christmas traditions is the novelty song. Songs like “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”, the Chipmunks, or that atrocious version of “Jingle Bells” as performed by barking dogs are a blight on the Holidays and an insult to the Savior wrapped in swaddling clothes. But Chuck Berry’s jokey ode to Santa’s foul-weather friend Rudolph works. Yes it’s a novelty song, as was the original “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (both songs were written by Johnny Marks), but even though the lyrics are filled with humor it’s not a joke. Also, Chuck Berry gave Marks’s tune one of his standard guitar riffs, blending a bit of “Johnny B. Goode” with the melody of “Little Queenie”, which means that it is as rock and roll as any song released in the past 60 years. There’s also a terrific version by Keith Richards, which he released as a one-off single in 1978. So this one’s a two-fer. The Chuck Berry version fits in beautifully with the best of Berry, and the Richards version ramps everything up and produces an absolutely glorious mess.
Released under the pseudonym “The Three Wise Men”, this was actually XTC at their Beatle-y best. The band had put aside their herky-jerky New Wave beginnings and their misguided attempts at funk and started concentrating on the lessons they’d learned from their forefathers in the 1960s. Aside from some brilliant conventional work, they also produced this perfect little pop gem that revels in all things Christmas.
Yet another song from the Glam Year of 1973, “Merry Xmas Everybody” was Slade’s entry into the Christmas song sweepstakes. It’s interesting (well, to me anyway) to note that the three Glam bands represented on this list all took very different approaches. Wizzard’s song was a kitchen sink production, befitting the guy who formed the Electric Light Orchestra. Elton’s song was a straightforward, and very typical, single. The major difference between “Step Into Christmas” and any other Elton John single was the lyric. Slade was a somewhat different animal. While they wore the costume of Glam rock, they were more of a Jack-the-Lad band, and “Merry Xmas Everybody” is the song for a proper knees-up down at the local pub. It’s irreverent, loud, and tons of fun. The perfect song to go with a pint of wassail and a side of figgy pudding.